The Next New Deal Must Be for Black Americans, TooRoundup
tags: racism, New Deal, COVID-19
Willow Lung-Amam is Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning and Director of Community Development at the National Center for Smart Growth at University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Trespassers?: Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia, and a forthcoming book on redevelopment politics in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.
For many Black and brown Americans, 2021 brought renewed optimism about advancing a racial justice agenda. With a new presidential administration, the racist despot will soon be removed, and the first African, Asian, Caribbean American and female vice president sworn in. Congress will be fully under Democratic control, and with a new mandate for change after a year of anti-racist uprisings that were among the largest protests in American history. Even the horrifying attack on the Capitol offered some rays of hope that honest conversations about the white supremacist roots of the U.S. are possible. As the Covid-19 vaccine began its slow but steady rollout, cheery forecasts emerged for a “v-shaped recovery” that could pull the economy out of an economic crisis often compared to the Great Depression.
In looking forward, Democratic leaders including President-elect Joe Biden, often harken back to the federal government’s response to that period — the New Deal. But for Black Americans, the New Deal left an ambivalent legacy that does not offer an easy template for change. Many argue it deepened racial inequalities — widening gaps in employment, education and wealth between white and Black Americans. Those looking to hold the Biden-Harris administration accountable for its commitment to advancing racial justice need to understand how and why the New Deal left so many behind, so its history is not repeated.
Set off by the 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression was the longest and largest economic slump in American history, lasting a decade and ending in the run-up to World War II. Similarly, as the economy ground to a halt in March 2020, the U.S. experienced one of the steepest economic downturns since WWII. What seems to unite the two periods even more than their economic impacts is by whom they were most felt. The Great Depression hit African Americans harder than any other group. Black Americans were most likely to be laid off, evicted, have their businesses shuttered and see their homes foreclosed. In 2020, the same seemed to hold true, as Black and Latinx Americans suffered the highest coronavirus infection and death rates.
Given their dire circumstances, Black Americans should have been the largest beneficiaries of federal government largess that followed the Great Depression, known as the New Deal. Instead, they benefited least.
“I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people,” Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed as he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 1932. Upon election, he got to work. Roosevelt instituted a slate of sweeping new initiatives and an alphabet soup of federal agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, for more oversight and regulation of banks. Various public works agencies, like the Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration and National Youth Administration put millions of people back to work.
Together, the New Deal and President Harry Truman’s ongoing support of it, known as the Fair Deal, constituted a period when, as historian Ira Katznelson put it, “affirmative action was white.” Their policies boosted white homeownership, wealth and opportunity, while leaving African Americans further behind. They formed the foundation of middle-class postwar prosperity, with new single-family homes and well-performing schools in communities built on racial exclusion. In segregated suburbs, white Americans fashioned ideas about the American Dream and a myth of meritocracy that was, in fact, buttressed by an unprecedented federal welfare program.
How will the Biden-Harris administration make sense of this tangled legacy in pushing its ambitious agenda to “build back better” and “rebuild the middle class,” while addressing racial justice issues?
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